‘Paralyzed’ by chaos at home, Trump sets off for Paris
PARIS (CNN) — If Washington is currently a dark place for President Donald Trump, a stop in the City of Light may prove well-timed.
“The White House is paralyzed,” a top Republican close to the West Wing told CNN ahead of Trump’s departure to Paris, a withering assessment of an administration whose goals of passing a health care bill, overhauling the tax code and defeating ISIS have been complicated once again.
“Another week lost,” is how one official described the legislative timeline for Trump and Republicans, an acknowledgment that the latest swirl of Russia developments complicate an already imperiled agenda.
Escaping what advisers, aides, and other Republicans describe as a White House rattled by Russia bombshells, Trump will find himself here instead embraced by Gallic splendor. He accepted an invitation from the new French president, Emmanuel Macron, to be on hand for Bastille Day, the national holiday that commemorates the start of the French Revolution.
The Paris trip is at least a momentary respite from his current predicament in the United States: embattled against accusations prompted by his oldest son’s meeting with a Russian lawyer and surrounded by lawyers and aides urging him to remain quiet.
Back home, Trump faces a deepening crisis over that meeting, which has jolted the White House and moved the Russian meddling controversy directly into Trump’s inner circle.
The President approached the news about Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting through the same lens he approaches everything with the word Russia in it, according to another person who has spoken with him: as an effort by his enemies and the media to discredit him and his presidency.
Privately, Trump has expressed dismay that Trump Jr. agreed to meet with the Russian lawyer, according to a Republican source, who said the President believes it wasn’t a smart move — but also that his son did not run afoul of the law.
Trump, the Republican source said, is annoyed that the narrative surrounding the meeting has become a distraction from what he and his advisers saw as a successful overseas trip last week to Poland and Germany.
Ahead of his departure for Paris, Trump spent much of his time watching television and huddled with top advisers, according to two administration officials. He barely left the Oval Office. And his mood ranged from furious to frustrated, but also defiant.
A day earlier, he received some degree of solace during a visit from evangelical leaders. A photo from the session inside the Oval Office showed a huddle forming around the entrenched President, hands resting on his shoulders as his head bows in prayer.
Outside the room in the West Wing hallways, staffers remain in fighting mood, according to several people speaking on condition of anonymity, describing the mindset among Trump’s aides. Many view the episode surrounding Trump Jr. — who remains widely popular among ex-campaign staffers — as blatantly unfair, even if they concede his decision-making on the matter appeared questionable.
White House chief of staff Reince Priebus — who himself has been the subject of speculation over his own standing with the President — has been telling staffers to “tune out the noise,” according to a person familiar with his conversations. He’s urged underlings to keep their heads down and stay focused on their work.
But the prospects of continuing the administration’s work apace became far more difficult Tuesday morning when the email bombshell — which showed Trump Jr. reacting enthusiastically to news the Russian government may have had dirt on Hillary Clinton — hit the West Wing with very little warning.
It’s also triggered another round of speculation about aides’ standing in the White House. Questions about the origin of the leaks have rippled through Washington, with the suggestion that backstabbing aides may be looking to take down their rivals.
Little has emerged about how, specifically, The New York Times learned about the damaging emails. But in a White House already gripped with internal battles, the revelations only fueled the impression of a divided West Wing.
One source familiar with the matter said tensions have emerged between some members of the President’s senior staff and Marc Kasowitz, Trump’s longtime lawyer who has been retained to handle the Russia matter.
When Trump departs for Paris late Wednesday, he’ll take along with him chief of staff Priebus, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, and his homeland security adviser Tom Bossert. But two of the most prominent faces of his trips abroad — senior advisers Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner — will remain stateside.
Some inside the administration concede the President’s staff is long due for a shakeup, but that constant efforts to rebut the Russia allegations have made executing such a decision difficult.
Priebus, one administration official said, faces “fresh, new hell” daily. And other staffers simply seem too inexperienced to properly execute a presidential agenda, the official said.
Trump pushed back on reports of disarray in his White House on Wednesday, writing on Twitter: “The W.H. is functioning perfectly, focused on HealthCare, Tax Cuts/Reform & many other things. I have very little time for watching T.V.”
For months, Republicans close to the White House have been wringing their hands about Trump’s reliance on his family members — political neophytes — for everything from political advice to domestic policy to international affairs.
A number of those officials warned that the combination of power and naïveté was sure to get Trump’s family members in trouble. But even these sources expressed surprise about the damaging nature of the meeting between Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner and a Russian lawyer.
“They’re in deep, deep s— and they don’t know it,” one Republican said of the Trump White House.
This Republican predicted the situation will worsen in the near future. Now that Trump’s family members have all lawyered up, “they’re past the point of coordination,” and each person’s lawyer will be looking to make a move that will cast their client in a positive light.
“Now you’re into the phase that they’re starting to turn on each other,” the source said.
But Trump is still more inclined to trust his family members than anyone else on staff.
“Trump has not surrounded himself with good, strong, smart political operatives,” said one source close to the White House. As for the kids and Kushner, “these guys have gone from never playing the game to walking into the major leagues, and they make mistakes all the time,” the Republican source said.
Trump himself has remained out of sight since returning late Saturday from Hamburg, where he attended a high-stakes G20 summit and met with several foreign leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The public invisibility is exceedingly rare for a new president. Officials described the absence as long-planned, however, after Trump complained he wasn’t given any downtime following his first foreign trip in May.
“The last time we didn’t plan any (down)-time and he wasn’t happy about it,” one official said.
Trump has been advised by his lawyers and White House advisers not to tweet about the matter involving his son, though he did emerge on Twitter Wednesday in a defiant mood.
“My son Donald did a good job last night. He was open, transparent and innocent. This is the greatest Witch Hunt in political history,” Trump wrote. “Sad!”
Escape to Paris
Having accepted an invitation from his French counterpart, Macron, to view the city’s Bastille Day celebrations, Trump will decamp from controversy-clouded Washington for a more laudatory environment in Paris, where a military parade and haute dining await.
Even in Paris, however, Trump will find the episode hard to avoid. He’s due to take questions from reporters on Thursday evening alongside Macron following more than an hour of bilateral talks inside the Élysée Palace.
Macron has already aligned himself as a tough-on-Russia counterpoint to Trump, who as recently as last week has questioned whether Russia was solely responsible for the election year hacking.
During a joint appearance with Putin at Versailles last month, Macron lit into his counterpart, employing a muscular takedown of various irritants — including a Russian propaganda campaign meant to discredit his candidacy — as the Russian leader stood by stone faced.
Trump hasn’t yet confronted Putin in the same type of public outburst. And while he did raise the election meddling issue during his meeting with Putin last week in Germany, it remains unclear whether he accepted Putin’s claims that Russia wasn’t involved.
In Paris, Trump and Macron — two of the globe’s newest political leaders — will seek areas of security cooperation, despite their outward differences on policy and personality. Appearances may deceive, however, as the two alpha-males find they have more in common than meets the eye.
For Trump, the trip represents a dramatic display of bilateral friendship for a leader not ordinarily disposed to overseas travel. On his first two foreign trips, Trump has seemed to fare better during bilateral stops in foreign capitals, where he’s showered with grand displays of friendship, than at multi-nation summits where his isolationist brand of politics has been shunned.
In Paris the pomp will come in droves: Trump will be treated to a formal welcome at Les Invalides, dinner perched on the second landing of the Eiffel Tower, and an elaborate military display to mark Bastille Day, the centerpiece of his visit.
The trip is also designed to mark the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I, and the security theme will carry over in talks between the leaders, which the White House said would center on Syria and counterterrorism efforts.
Macron hopes to demonstrate to Trump the willingness of France to play a broader role in global security affairs. The country is the second largest contributor to the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and a key actor in counterterrorism efforts in northern Africa.
The traditional military parade Friday down the Champs-Élysées will give Trump a view of France’s military hardware, but also point to the long history of cooperation between the two countries. The White House said American troops would participate this year, and that three veterans of the 1944 Normandy invasion would also be on hand.
But if Macron is eager to develop close security ties with Trump, in other areas he’s already emerged as a vocal critic, most notably over Trump’s withdrawal from the climate accord that bears the French capital’s name.
Following the announcement, Macron adopted an aggressive stance, telling climate scientists they were welcome in France and mocking Trump’s campaign slogan to urge the world to “make the planet great again.”
Macron, who was elected decisively in May and bolstered by legislative successes for his new political party, views himself as a bridge between Europe and the United States, his advisers have said.
Unlike German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who faces reelection in September, Macron is unencumbered by a looming political contest where close ties to Trump could be unpopular.
Instead, Macron faces pressure to improve the security situation in France, which will require cooperation with the United States on intelligence sharing and bringing stability to the Middle East.